Thursday, September 24, 2015


We all know the popular adage that says if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. What we get when we heed that sound advice are lessons in the value of perseverance, commitment, and respect. All worthwhile virtues. What it fails to address, however, at least on the surface, are the equally important components of character development known as discernment, non-attachment, and preparedness.

There is nothing wrong with establishing intentions and goals for yourself within your yoga practice. In fact, so long as they are reasonable and healthy, it is generally encouraged to do so. Because our bodies are so easily affected—meaning that they adapt quickly, and we can see and feel that happening—our āsana practice allows us (relatively) easy access to the kinds of attitudes associated with goal-setting such as patience and dedication. Embodying the try try again mentality by staying focused in the midst of setbacks is one of the first stages of successful goal-setting, because, as you know, if you give up too soon you will never accomplish anything.

But, like most things, there is more to it than that. All trying and no yielding does not typically help you reach your goals; it is more likely that you’ll be left feeling more exhausted and frustrated than satisfied. That is because the qualities of steadfastness which make up the early stages of goal-setting must be tempered by more refined stages which include qualities of awareness and honesty.

Cultivating discernment on the mat means, among other things, knowing the importance of right and proper timing. There are right times and less right times to be determined. Sometimes determination turns into something more like stubbornness, or relentlessness to the point of vice rather than virtue. You must be able to pause and reflect on the propriety of what you are seeking—Is this the right time for me to work toward this goal? Am I in the best place mentally, energetically, and emotionally? Do I have sufficient time to devote toward the hard work required as well as adequate time for rest in order to rejuvenate? Do my reasons for wanting to achieve this goal match my current values as a person and a practitioner? Does this goal fit into my personal vision of practice—the way I want and need my practice to look and feel right now? Answering No or I Don’t Know to any of those questions may indicate that now is not the right time for that particular goal. That is not to say that it is an outright poor or wrong goal for you to have; only that some other time down the road, given a different set of circumstances, may prove to be much more fruitful. A good goal isn’t by itself sufficient; it has to be the right one at the right time.

Acting from a state of mindful non-attachment is something we have been introduced to already. (See previous post: "Non-attachment, or How to Practice Without Practicing"). It is a difficult part of yoga practice, indeed of life in general, so it is definitely worth repeating. Sometimes we come to think that some yoga pose is vital to our practice; that our practice is in some way defined or measured by our ability to perform the pose. For varied reasons, we may have decided that achieving it somehow indicates an important personal victory, or that it means we have graduated beyond the “beginner” stage of practice, or that it will help us to get our teacher’s attention, or that it is the mark of a true yogi. But those are all superficial feelings attached to the materiality of the object you are seeking. To be non-attached means to set aside the superficial pleasure of achievement or the displeasure of defeat, and instead to abide in a deep sense of inner fulfillment and in recognition of an essential human capacity that radiates from your core. Knowing why you want or need the achievement of some goal in your practice is crucial, and it is only when you practice for the right reasons that you will receive that which is truly worthwhile to have.

Goals are much simpler to achieve when they have been properly prepared for. Preparedness refers to both the present moment as well as to the recent and distant past. Present moment preparedness means showing up to practice. You have to actually be on the mat in order to experience growth and progress within your practice. That seems so obvious, yet we all need explicit reminding of it sometimes. It also means showing up on time and staying until the end. If you cannot be at your practice for the entirety of it (whether it is a personal practice at home or a public class), it means you have not properly prepared your schedule, your agenda, in such a way as to make practice a priority. And that will make progress more difficult. Present moment preparedness also includes things like arranging your practice space neatly—practicing in a clean, warm, well-lit room, and using clean props which are in good condition and which are kept tidy when not in use. That kind of thoughtful organization helps to ensure that your practice goes smoothly and leaves you feeling rejuvenated rather than frazzled.

Another element of preparedness in regards to your physical practice includes proper warm-ups. If you plan to include a difficult or challenging āsana in your practice, you must have completed the prerequisite work. That includes both presently and in the past. During this practice, during this class time, during this sequence of poses, have I properly prepared by body so that it is ready to try this pose? Also, over the course of several practices, throughout the span of my yogic lifetime, as part of an ongoing series of developments and achievements, have I properly prepared by body so that it is ready to try this pose? And keep in mind the ways in which you must be properly prepared other than physically. You must have also done the necessary work so as to be emotionally, psychologically, and energetically ready. Preparedness does not guarantee success; there are other contingencies involved. However, lack thereof will almost always leave you bested.

So it isn’t just try, try again. It’s more like if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again IF that’s the best choice for you; and if it’s not, then consider doing something else, and maybe try again later.

More could be said about all of these things. But my point is to say that our focus in our DK class is shifting again. We have spent many recent weeks (maybe a couple or few months?) diligently working on upright hip-openers and seated forward folds. It has gone quite well. But it seems as though progress has reached a kind of plateau, and now is the time to direct our attention elsewhere for a while.

We are going to bring Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and its variations back to the forefront of our class time for the next several weeks. The intention is two-fold: (1) experience the Shoulderstand cycle in light of all the hip-opening, core-stabilizing, and upper-back mobilizing which has been such a big part of our recent practices, and (2) use the Shoulderstand cycle to continue to improve that same hip-opening, core-stabilizing, and upper-back mobilizing we need to get over the plateau and into deeper seated forward bend work.

In other words, our original Shoulderstand work set some of the foundation for the initial seated floor work, and now that introduction to seated floor work is going to prove fruitful toward deeper Shoulderstand work, which should likewise feed back into deeper seated floor work in the near(-ish) future. Something like that.

So, with a variety of poses beforehand and afterward, the following is the sequence of events we will be strongly focused on for the coming weeks:

Salamba Sarvangasana I (Supported Shoulderstand first variation) [223]

Salamba Sarvangasana II (Supported Shoulderstand second variation) [235]

Halasana (Plow pose) [244]

Karnapidasana (Ear-pressing pose) [246]

Supta Konasana (Reclined Angle pose) [247]

Parsva Halasana (Side Plow pose) [249]

Ekapada Sarvangasana (One-legged Shoulderstand) [250]

Parsvaikapada Sarvangasana (Side One-legged Shoulderstand) [251]

Matsyasana variation (Fish) [112-14]

Saturday, September 5, 2015


I taught my first yoga class on September 6, 2005, and I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t actually remember the content of what I taught in that first class, but things which I do remember well include where it was (the YWCA), how I felt (anxious, as in both scared and eager), and the names of all three students in the room that day (Robin, Mei, and Cyndi).

The beginnings of my teaching career were not glamorous, and, looking back, it’s a little surprising that I made it this far considering how it all got started. That classroom was upstairs at my local Y in a room that had originally been designed for ballet. It was a long, narrow rectangle with carpet, mirrors, and a barre. The music came from a CD boom box, and we had to keep it turned up throughout class in order to drown out the noise coming from the water-aerobics class happening directly beneath us. We also had to supply all of our own props; I lugged around a big tub of blocks and blankets, and we used old neck ties as straps.

It wasn’t ideal, but neither was it the worst environment I taught in during that time period (one in particular involved a cafeteria wherein I had to move the tables and chairs and sweep up the remains of lunch before my students arrived). However, those accommodations were probably about on par with my teaching skills at the time, so I was grateful for all of it. But every class I led felt better than the one before; every time I took my seat at the front of the room, I fell more and more in love with the practice and the craft. And some of my most devoted students and good friends came from those classes at the Y.

I didn’t know then how important teaching yoga would be for me. I didn’t know then that I would eventually open my own studio, or that I would teach others how to teach, or that it would help me move more than a thousand miles away from home to practice with a whole new community. I only knew that it felt good, so I kept doing it. And I wanted to do it well, so I kept learning.

Genuineness trumps excellence

I think more than anything else, teaching yoga has taught me the necessity of being genuine. By that I mean, my best moments happen when I am simply being myself in the classroom. Of course, being genuinely comfortable with yourself in the world is one of life’s most important (and hardest) lessons regardless of being a yogi. For teachers and public speakers, it is natural to want to please the people in front of you. You want them to like and appreciate you, and you want them to come back. You want to say and do all the right things, you want to impress and inspire, and you want be to excellent. It took me a long time to understand that it isn’t just about qualifications or proficiency. And it takes more than just the coincidence of my being a teacher (even if I’m good at it) and their being a student (even if they desire to learn) to form a meaningful teacher/student relationship.

Like most new teachers, it took me a long time to find my own personality and presentation style. Only after a lot of trying to be something or someone which I wasn’t in an effort to be attractive to everyone, did I realize that it works best when I am comfortable and natural. Now I teach the way I want to practice; I teach the way I want to be taught. I have learned that those students who enjoy the experience, who resonate with the material, who also feel comfortable and natural in that space—those are my students and they will come back. And the ones who don’t feel that way will find someone else to guide them, and that is good.

(Un)changing for the better

It’s not only my teaching style which has changed throughout the last ten years. My personal practice and my non-professional life have both as well. Yoga provokes change. It changes its students physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically. It changes you on the mat and it follows you off the mat. It has helped me become stronger and healthier as it is my form of physical exercise. I am more patient and less self-critical from embarking on its endless challenges and difficulties. And the diversity of people I practice with has fostered in me resilience and compassion. It also helped me to embrace minimalism, and to shed those things which no longer serve me.

On the other hand, yoga also promotes not changing; it keeps you exactly the same, unchanged, in the best possible ways. It highlights and embellishes the best parts of what and who you are. And it helps you learn how to share those virtues with the world around you. My practice, for example, nurtures my inclinations for introspective curiosity—I am philosophically minded, and yoga helps me to feel good about constantly asking “how” and “why.” And I have the privilege of helping others answer those questions for themselves. I also work best when I am allowed to be independent, self-responsible, and self-motivated. And yoga has given me the opportunity to prove to myself and to others that I am capable of making really good choices, and of following through with the commitments which I make.

Sometimes we can become obsessed with how to be better, different, improved, or more-than; always striving to be something we think we should be but are not. And at other times we can be too stubborn and shortsighted to recognize that we are desperately overdue for an adjustment. I love that I am more patient than I used to be, and I love that I am still as heartily determined as I always have been. Ten years of personal and professional ups and downs has taught me that yoga can change you in ways you cannot imagine, and it can leave you utterly unaffected.

Ready or not, here it comes

One of the keys to success is starting with a clear and reasonable intention. You must know what you are doing and why you are doing it in order to accomplish anything. There are innumerable factors and contingencies in life which you cannot control and which just happen around you whether you like or not. But something which is within your scope of management is answering this pair of questions: What do you want? and what are you willing to do to get it?

Making the big decisions in life is not easy. For me, the day to day choices inspired by my practice gave me a solid foundation of decision-making capabilities. I regularly ask myself what I want and what I am willing to do to get it. I am willing to practice even if I am tired or distracted, because I want the feelings of revitalization and clear-mindedness that I know I will have when it is over. I want physical health and longevity, so I am willing to practice poses I detest in order to receive the benefits which they provide. I want my asana practice to develop and advance, so I challenge myself to try new and ever harder poses knowing that I might fall or fail.

Falling and failing are risks you have to be willing to take on the mat. It is not reasonable to expect yourself to only practice those poses you know with certainty you can perform masterfully. Sometimes you just have to go for it, trust your ability to take good care of yourself, and make the best out of whatever happens.

Those little choices—the choice to show up no matter what, to pay careful attention, to try and try again, and to do so boldly—give me confidence with which to set good intentions for myself off the mat. My yoga practice helped me to garner the courage and discipline I needed to quit my job in order to attend teacher training, to decide I wanted to study philosophy more than I wanted to be a business owner, and to start over in a state I had never visited before. I had no way of predicting the outcome of any of those decisions; I just had to make the choice, trust myself, and adjust accordingly.

I am not in control of life’s curveballs, and sometimes the parameters within which I am asked to perform exceed my readiness. But I am always going to stand up on my own two feet and take one thoughtful step after another. Yoga has not only taught me how to recognize what I most want, it has also taught me how to think critically about my willingness to strive, and it has given me many of the tools I need to succeed.

And more…

I have learned so much more than that, of course; about myself, about others, and about yoga. For instance, yoga isn’t likely to fix your problems, but it might help you to avoid making them worse. Also, the only way to truly know what is right or best for you is through consistent and nonjudgmental experimentation.

I am certain that the lessons aren’t over for me yet. Those early days at the Y seem like a lifetime ago; experiences I would never wish to repeat but hope I never forget. Because of them, and because of everything that has happened since then, yoga is firmly established in my life. I need it as much as I need air to breathe and friends to love. My practice is a priority and a compulsion. It’s my fountain of youth, my play date, and my scholarship. The same way I encourage my students to do for themselves, I treat it quite seriously. But not too seriously, because it’s just yoga! :-) I am excited about continuing to learn, and honored to be able to bear witness as others learn.

Cheers to ten years and counting…